History Vs. Podcast Episode 2: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Time

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Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s a chilly day in February 1877, and Theodore Roosevelt, a freshman at Harvard, is busy. Very, very busy. He wakes up at 7:30 and breakfasts on “hot biscuits, toast, chops or beef steak, and buckwheat cakes.”

After breakfast, he reviews notes from his classes—he’s taking classical literature; composition and translation in Greek, Latin, and German; trigonometry and geometry; physics; and chemistry.

At 10 a.m. he eagerly digs into his mail, reviewing the day’s letters, perhaps dashing off a few rapid-fire replies.

From 11 a.m. to noon he attends Latin recitation, after which he heads to the gym to train for an upcoming boxing match in the lightweight division at Harvard.

Next, lunch, where there is a “free fight” that sends a fellow student under the table, prompting threats of expulsion from a Mrs. Morgan.

After lunch, there is more studying and more recitation until late into the afternoon.

In the evening he dines with a Mr. and Mrs. Tudor, writing later that he had “a very pleasant home-like time.”

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR versus Time.

Roosevelt once declared, “I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know,” and it’s true—it’s hard to think of another person who accomplished as much as TR did, even though he was working with 24 hours in the day, just like the rest of us.

Cal Newport: This is the crazy thing. The busiest job you can imagine is being the president of the United States, and even in that job, he felt like he had too much downtime.

That’s Cal Newport, author of the books Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He first read about TR’s feats of productivity in historian Edmund Morris’s book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was home-schooled for most of his life, because he was too weak to go to regular school, but he thrived under the strict schedule set by the Dresden family he lived with in Germany for five months in 1873.

It’s perhaps this time in Germany that formed TR’s lifelong obsession with a schedule. Each day, he would get up at 6:30, eat breakfast until 7:30, then study until 12:30. Then he’d have lunch, study until 3, and enjoy free time until tea at 7. After that, it was studying until 10, then bed. He wrote to his father, Thee, “It is harder than I have ever studied before in my life, but I like it for I really feel that I am making considerable progress.”

When he had to take some time off after an asthma attack, he insisted that his tutors work him extra hard to make up what he had missed. When he was 15, the Roosevelts returned to the States, and TR took up with another tutor, this time with an ambitious goal: Get into Harvard in the fall of 1876, which meant passing the entrance exams in the summer of ‘75.

Roosevelt had a year and a half to cram, and he studied six to eight hours every day. His tutor, Arthur Cutler, later wrote, “The young man never seemed to know what idleness was.”

According to author David McCullough, in that time Roosevelt accomplished what normally took three years, and he passed his preliminary Harvard entrance exams in July 1875.

TR kept just as busy while he was at Harvard, where he lived in a boarding house off campus because the dorms were considered not ideal for his asthma.

He joined a number of clubs: He wrote in his diary that he was “Librarian of the Porcellian, Secretary of the Pudding, Treasurer of the O.K., Vice President of the Natural History Soc., President of the A.D.Q. [and] Editor of the Advocate." He was also a member of the Glee Club, although he didn’t sing. He taught Sunday School. He took dance class but avoided going to the theater, because “I don’t care for it, and it might hurt my eyes.”

He read incessantly, at a rate of two to three pages a minute. He boxed and wrestled and hiked. He courted the ladies and had an active social life. He studied as much as 36 hours a week. And in between that, he found time to write two works on ornithology and begin a book that would later be placed on every Navy ship, The Naval War of 1812. In the words of one classmate, TR was “forever at it.”

Cal: This is someone who was taking issues of productivity to new levels.

According to Morris, TR got through such huge amounts of work due to “iron self-discipline” that had become a habit. He spent just a quarter of the day at his desk, but he concentrated so hard, and read so rapidly, that he could take more time off than most other students. But even his time off was not that restful. It was packed with activity.

Newport was so inspired by Morris’s description of TR’s productivity that he featured Roosevelt in Deep Work.

Cal: There's really two factors to his productivity. One is this idea which I've written about more recently, including in Digital Minimalism, which is his belief that action is better than inaction. And that’s an interesting idea. A lot of people, especially today in a world of easy distraction, think what they really need is just time when they have nothing to do, they can just sit there and watch Netflix while swiping on their phone and just be bathed in passive distraction. They need that to recharge. They're exhausted. But TR is from this other school of thought, which says you're almost always better off, from a perspective of recharging your satisfaction, doing things, quality things, hard things all the time. You could be doing hard things or sleep, and that's it.

Throughout late 19th-century, early 20th-century thinkers, this is a common idea, that action all the time that's quality leaves you better off than trying to alternate between sort of pure passive rest and action. So I like that. But the other element is that he really believed in this formula that I've been writing about for years, which is what you produce is a function of the time you spend times your intensity of focus. And so TR's hack was "Let me take the intensity of focus piece of that equation and really pump it up as high as possible. If I can do that, then I can really minimize the time spent piece and get a lot of things accomplished."

We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsor.

 

Morris wrote that Roosevelt “plotted every day with the methodism of a Wesleyan minister,” and there’s no better example of that than a schedule of one of his days from the campaign trail in 1900. While incumbent presidential candidate William McKinley largely stayed away from the campaign trail, vice presidential candidate Roosevelt was crisscrossing the country.

The schedule itself is a testament to his boundless energy, but so are the statistics of that campaign season: According to Morris, Roosevelt, by November, had made “673 speeches in 567 towns in 24 states; he had traveled 21,209 miles and spoken an average of 20,000 words a day to 3 million people.”

One day on the trail, his schedule went like this:

  • 7:00 a.m. Breakfast
  • 7:30 a.m. A speech
  • 8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work
  • 9:00 a.m. A speech
  • 10:00 a.m. Dictating letters
  • 11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines
  • 11:30 a.m. A speech
  • 12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work
  • 12:30 p.m. A speech
  • 1:00 p.m. Lunch
  • 1:30 p.m. A speech
  • 2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott
  • 3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams
  • 3:45 p.m. A speech
  • 4:00 p.m. Meeting the press
  • 4:30 p.m. Reading
  • 5:00 p.m. A speech
  • 6:00 p.m. Reading
  • 7:00 p.m. Supper
  • 8-10 p.m. Speaking
  • 11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his [train] car
  • 12:00 a.m. To bed

It’s enough to make you want to take a nap.

Erin: He had a long history of basically having these really regimented days. Is that something that you think contributed to his ability to get a lot done?

Cal: I think it absolutely did. A lot of people, especially today, when they're thinking about their personal productivity, they think in terms of tasks. You know, what do I want to get done today? Where's my to-do list? Maybe I'm going to do the most-important-task-of-the-day system, where I choose one thing I really want to get done.

But something I consistently discover is that high achievers are often echoing the Roosevelt approach, which is "I want to actually allocate my attention," which means when you look at a particular day, you're not making a task list; you're blocking off your hours. What am I doing during this half hour? What am I doing during these three hours? You have so much attention to give in a day; you're trying to find the optimal allocation.

They also think about this on higher scales. What am I doing this week? Oh, Wednesday is the day that I'm going to have a lot of downtime in the morning, so that's when I'm going to really get after this project.

And so that idea of thinking about "I have, whatever it is—12 hours of attention to allocate in a day, some of those hours are going to be higher intensity than others, depending on where they fall; how do I get the biggest return on that attention?" That's an incredibly powerful productivity hack. It's one that I've been preaching, and I was influenced in that, in particular, by that approach of TR.

We know he was even doing that with his leisure, which I find interesting. When he's at Oyster Bay, when he's at his house on the Long Island Sound, he had pretty structured approaches to: I'm going to go rowing. I'm going to row across the sound, then we're going to play these games with the cousins, then we're going to read or whatever. Even at his leisure, he was allocating his attention as well.

Erin: So how does TR compare to other highly productive or successful people in history?

Cal: So he has that, as we talked about before, that manic energy, that need to always be doing things, that distrust of passive relaxation. That's pretty common. I mean, you see that a lot, let's say, in the business world in high achievers. That's certainly a definitive trait of, let's say, like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, for example. These are people who had this restless drive. "I’ve got do something. I’ve got to do something else. I don't trust passive time. I don't trust recharging," I mean, often to the detriment of their health.

That type of thing is common. Once you get to a certain level of productivity, like you're running ... two companies at the same time, or you're running the country at the same time that you're writing books. That's how they get there. You can't get there without being highly intentional about your time.

Roosevelt’s level of activity didn’t let up when he was in the White House. This might be best exemplified by a project created by archivist Chloe Elder, who, in the summer of 2017, was between masters degrees and doing a remote internship at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Every day, she’d clock in and go through material piece by piece adding metadata. A lot of the documents Elder was cataloging were letters written during Roosevelt’s presidency.

Chloe: There's something about being plopped down right in the middle of someone's correspondence. It's immediate. It's often very intimate.

As she was working, Elder began to notice a pattern.

Chloe: I kept seeing this one sort of standard reply from TR's secretary. And it would be something along the lines of, "Thank you very much for your letter, or your invitation, but President Roosevelt is far too busy to respond personally, or far too busy to attend the event, or make a speech, or read your story that you've submitted to him." And I just wanted to see, well how busy was he?

So she decided to create a calendar—something that would allow her to visualize just what a week in the life of President Roosevelt looked like. She began searching through the digitized archives at the Center, as well as his desk diaries, which he kept every day. Eventually, she zeroed in on a week where Roosevelt was sitting for a portrait by John Singer Sargent.

Chloe: TR would only pose for half an hour a day, after lunch, and it was apparently very hard to get him to sit still and not be rushing off somewhere else.

Erin: Classic TR.

After gathering all of the data and crunching the numbers, a picture began to emerge, and that picture was action-packed. According to the calendar Elder created, sometimes TR would hold up to eight meetings in an hour, meaning that if they were all equal in length, they would have been a mere 7.5 minutes each.

But even for TR, life doesn’t neatly fit into such tidy chunks.

Chloe: Some of the meetings do look like they're really quick, it says to pay respects. So that sounds like a brief sort of introduction. But then there are other meetings, and you could maybe guess what was going on if you also look at what was happening politically at the time, or looking at his letters. But a lot of it is still a bit of a mystery.

And on top of his busy schedule, he was sending letter after letter after letter.

Chloe: How many letters did he write that week? I'd have to count up, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 ... I mean, a lot of letters that week. I saw he regularly wrote more letters than he received on any given day, really. In his lifetime he wrote over 150,000 letters.

Erin: I'm not president of the United States and I struggle to return an email.

Chloe: Right?

This is probably a good place for a break. We’ll be right back.

 

In addition to his many meetings and his epic commitment to correspondence, TR was also reading around a book a day and making time to be active.

Roosevelt played tennis, though he was never photographed in his tennis whites. He boxed, and when he couldn’t do that anymore, he took up jiu-jitsu. He swam—nude—in the Potomac. And he regularly dragged diplomats to Rock Creek Park to take a brisk walk or maybe scale a cliff.

As one such diplomat later recalled of a jaunt in the park, “He … made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand. His great delight is rock climbing, which is my weak point. I disgraced myself completely, and my arms and shoulders are still stiff with dragging myself up by roots and ledges. At one place I fairly stuck, and could not get over the top till he caught me by the collar and hauled at me.… He did almost all the talking, to my great relief, for I had no breath to spare.”

After he left the White House, TR’s ability to get a lot done in very little time loomed large. His successor, William Howard Taft, bemoaned, “I would give anything in the world if I had the ability to clear away work as Roosevelt did.” Me too, Will. Me too.

Erin: I often say that TR just makes me feel really tired, because it's like, "How?”

Cal: So the key factor seems to be this internal engine that gives him such a burst of energy that he has to be doing things throughout the day, and I've never seen someone focus it more intensely than he did. I'm also in awe. I wish I had maybe, what, 30 percent of his energy. I'd probably be 200 percent more productive.

Erin: He didn't have many of the distractions that we have today. Do we think that he would be as productive if he had a smartphone, for example, or the internet?

Cal: I don't know. On the one hand, he clearly had this huge energy and a huge drive to intensely do things and to produce things, so he might've been a figure that was just completely dismissive of "I don't need passive entertainment. I don't need to sit. This is not valuable enough. I don't want to sit here tweeting. I want to write a book," right. So he might've been completely dismissive of it.

On the other hand, he was highly curious and really attracted to new information. When you're talking about the early 20th century, what could you do? You could have smart people to the White House. You could read books. They were inherently very focused activities. We might see a TR that was so entranced by all these different rabbit holes he could go down, that instead of writing the book on naval history, he would be watching YouTube videos about knot-tying or something like that.

And if that latter thing is true, then that begs the question, how many potential TRs, at least in terms of productive output, leadership, and impact, are we losing? Because that huge energy and curiosity, "I need to do things, I need to act, I need to produce things," I mean, is that being sacked by an attention economy engine that is more roaming and finely tuned than we've ever had before in history. That's the pessimistic view—[that] we've been losing potential TRs because of it.

But I don't know. I tend to think he wants to produce. He wants to think big thoughts. He wants to produce interesting things. He wants to make big changes. He probably would not be a big user of Twitter. That would be my guess.

If you, like me, are wondering where Roosevelt found the energy to get so much done, one clue might be in his coffee intake. He was said to drink up to a gallon of coffee a day, and according to his son Ted, his mug was less like a regular coffee mug and “more in the nature of a bathtub.” He put up to seven lumps of sugar in each cup, too.

But according to Elder, that might not be Roosevelt’s ultimate hack.

Erin: So what do you think the rest of us can learn about how to be productive from TR's approach to his schedule?

Chloe: Well I wouldn't recommend the gallon of coffee a day. But I think he found what worked for him as far as being very productive all the time. And he seemed to thrive in that sort of environment. TR wasn't used to sitting still for more than half hour, and his MO was just to keep going and keep moving. And he was steadfast in that way of doing things, and I think that really worked for him. Just to find out what works best and run with it.

And when Newport thinks about how we can all be a little more like TR, he thinks of a quote from an interview Steve Martin did with Charlie Rose.

Cal: Charlie Rose had asked him, "What's your advice to aspiring entertainers?" And Steve Martin said, "Well, the advice I give them, which is never what they want to hear, but the advice I give them is be so good you can't be ignored. If you do that, good things will come." But TR, I think, really embodied that as well. He didn't just want to do things; he wanted to do things really well. He always wanted to be so good you couldn't ignore him. He was always driven to do things at a really high level of quality, which sounds obvious, but I think it's really different than a lot of our instincts today, especially in a world of sort of attention-economy media, as well as digital communication, where we also have this hustle culture, which is just be busy, right, do lots of things. Email lots of people. Have lots of coffees. Do a lot of things on social media. Just be kind of in the mix and crushing it and hustling and all this, and that'll somehow alchemize into some sort of success.

And I think TR represented a counterpoint to that, which is busyness by itself means nothing, hustling by itself means nothing. Things that you produce, things that you have shipped that are so good that it's hard for people to ignore, that's the foundation for interesting impact. I love the way that he embodied that. Busyness for busyness' sake was not a value. Intensity toward things that really mattered or might have a real impact was something he cared about. I think there's probably a lot to learn from that today.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan.

This show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Cal Newport and Chloe Elder.

To learn more about this episode, check out mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

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Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

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2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

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Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

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3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

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Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

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4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

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The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

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5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

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Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

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6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

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This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

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Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

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8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

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What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

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Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

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10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

History Vs. Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt and the Perdicaris Affair

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iHeartRadio

The villa on the hill of Djebal Kebir, to the west of Tangier in Morocco, looks more like a palace than a home. Built in the Spanish style, it has white-clad stone walls, and turrets, and looks over the Strait of Gibraltar. The inside is resplendent: Rooms overflow with fine art, pristine porcelains, damasks, and Oriental rugs. There are many, many servants, and a menagerie of animals roam the grounds and the halls, among them dogs, cranes, pheasants, and two monkeys that jump into the owners’ laps and eat orange blossoms from their hands.

The villa is known as Aidonia, or the Place of Nightingales. It’s May 18, 1904, and inside the villa, 64-year-old globetrotter Ion Perdicaris, along with his wife, Ellen Varley, and her son, Cromwell, are sitting down to dinner, attended to by a servant in knee-length scarlet pants and a jacket embroidered with gold.

Ion is the son of Gregory Perdicaris, a Greek-American who made his fortune in the gas industry, and he has reaped the benefits of his family’s immense wealth by buying residences all around the world before he built the Place of Nightingales in 1877. Tonight, as every night, they dine lavishly, then retreat to the drawing room to relax—at least until the peace is shattered by the sound of screams coming from the servants’ quarters.

What happens next will soon become an international incident that garners the intervention of none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. In this bonus episode, we’ll take a look at how TR used his big stick diplomacy to make the most of an international incident in an election year. This episode is TR and the Perdicaris Affair.

When Ion and Cromwell sprint to source of the commotion, they come upon armed men standing in their home. The villa is under siege.

The bandits have given the butler a swift clubbing with their rifle butts, and Ion and Cromwell are bound and brought to meet the man in charge of this operation.

He introduces himself simply: “I am the Raisuli.”

Alternately described as a bandit, murderer, and folk hero, depending on who’s asking, the man known in English as Raisuli is a charismatic political idealist and insurgent, ruling over groups of bandits dedicated to disrupting the European influence in Morocco and waging war against the sultans who allowed it. And if you know Morocco—as Perdicaris does—you know his handiwork.

But bloodshed isn’t the motivator tonight. Raisuli has political demands he’ll soon reveal.

Ion, his stepson, and an attendant are whisked away on their own horses, leaving the staff and Mrs. Perdicaris to absorb what had just happened.

Word of the incident got out as it was happening—the phone lines to the villa had not been cut, and as Raisuli’s men tore through the Perdicaris home, one of the women of the house placed a call to the central office in Tangier alerting them to the attack and kidnapping. It wasn’t long before Samuel Gummere, the Consul General at Tangier, got involved. He became the point of contact between Mrs. Perdicaris and Washington.

The first cable from Morocco went straight to the State Department on May 19. Gummere described the situation as “most serious” and requested a Man-of-War—basically, the biggest battleship available.

The cable was received by Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Loomis, who informed President Roosevelt. This was the era of “Big Stick” diplomacy, and Roosevelt ordered that seven warships head immediately to Tangier. But it wasn’t an act of war—it was more like an aggressive flex.

Days after the kidnapping, Raisuli contacted Sultan Abdelaziz of Morocco with his demands to let Perdicaris and Varley free. He wanted political immunity for himself and his followers, the release of all political prisoners connected with his movement, the firing of a local official who had chained him years earlier, 70,000 Spanish silver dollars, and he wanted tax-free control over two of Morocco’s wealthiest districts.

The sheer extravagance of the demands, especially in exchange for the release of a foreigner like Perdicaris, was a non-starter for the sultan. When a messenger from the sultan informed Raisuli there would be no deal, Raisuli had one of his men slit the messenger’s throat.

By May 28, Roosevelt had finally read Raisuli’s demands, which Secretary of State John Hay described as “preposterous.” And while ships were on their way to speed up the talks, in reality, the men knew their hands were tied. The president couldn’t really force the sultan to accede to Raisuli’s outlandish list—he could only make strong suggestions. And he couldn’t just send troops into Morocco to retrieve Perdicaris by force—Gummere knew Raisuli would kill Ion and Varley long before they could reach him.

“I hope they may not murder Mr. Perdicaris, but a nation cannot degrade itself to prevent ill-treatment of a citizen,” Hay said.

Still, TR’s brand of pressure could be very persuasive, and early on the morning of May 30, the imposing USS Brooklyn was first seen near Tangier harbor. It would soon be joined by six other ships. Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris wrote that “some 30,000 tons of American gunmetal should soon persuade the sultan to start negotiating.”

Upon hearing the news of the arrival of American warships, Raisuli actually showed relief—with this type of pressure on the sultan, those “preposterous” demands were more likely to become a reality.

Once the fleet was settled in the harbor, Hay cabled Gummere:

“President wishes everything possible done to secure the release of Perdicaris. He wishes it clearly understood that if Perdicaris is murdered, this government will demand the life of the murderer.”

In America, the press and public were outraged at the situation and wanted action. Any crime against an American on foreign soil was seen as a crime against the country as a whole. For Roosevelt—a president both adored and criticized for his overt imperialist intentions—this was a prime opportunity to show the world what this so-called “American century” was all about.

As Barbara W. Tuchman wrote at American Heritage, “The president’s instant and energetic action on behalf of a single citizen fallen among thieves in a foreign land made Perdicaris a symbol of America’s new role on the world stage.”

The situation stretched into early June, and the number of countries involved kept growing. Now, a British warship, the Prince of Wales, had come to Tangier, and Hay had contacted the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, to put more pressure on the sultan. France had been increasing its presence in Morocco, so this tactic carried plenty of weight.

Soon after, there seemed to be a breakthrough: The Moroccan government had apparently accepted all of Raisuli’s demands, outside of the ransom, which still needed to be “reasonably negotiated,” according to Morris.

But once Raisuli was close to getting what he asked for, he simply came back with more demands: He now wanted additional districts to control.

Secretary of State John Hay, clearly frustrated with Raisuli’s games, wrote to Roosevelt, “I feel that it would be most inexpedient to surrender to him. We have done what we can for Perdicaris.”

And something else was emerging at this time that may have weakened Hay’s already questionable enthusiasm for the whole episode: Evidence was mounting that Perdicaris might not actually be a U.S. citizen.

We’ll be right back.

 

In June 1904, with Ion Perdicaris and his stepson still being held hostage by Raisuli in Morocco, President Theodore Roosevelt was putting pressure on the sultan to acquiesce to the ransom demands to bring them back home.

But the president was about to learn that the man at the center of a potential international incident might not be a U.S. citizen at all.

This information first came to light on June 1, when Hay received a letter from a cotton broker named A.H. Slocomb who had read about the Moroccan crisis in the news. He claimed that he had met Perdicaris in Greece as the Civil War raged in America. Ion had apparently told Slocomb that he had renounced his U.S. citizenship for Greek citizenship during the war—likely in an effort to avoid being drafted by the Confederacy and have his property confiscated by the government.

Within days of the initial claims, Slocomb’s information was confirmed by Greek officials.

According to Morris, Hay sent the news to Roosevelt, who was apparently unaware of the initial whispers about Perdicaris’s citizenship … or lack thereof. Right away, everyone knew that the information simply couldn’t get out—the president had ordered American warships to Tangier, news of the kidnapping was filling newspapers, and even the French and British were involved in exerting pressure on the sultan to make a deal.

TR couldn’t just turn his back on the whole affair now—the political embarrassment would be terrible. It was also an election year, and quite frankly, backing down wasn’t an option.

As this crisis was unfolding, TR was dealing with the start of the Republican National Convention in Chicago. While TR was a no-brainer to secure the nomination, he still had plenty of enemies in his own party, and the last thing he needed was Perdicaris’s citizenship controversy coming out.

As Morris explains in Theodore Rex, Roosevelt chose to rationalize things. Since Raisuli had believed Perdicaris to be a U.S. citizen, he had, in Roosevelt’s mind, taken action against an American, whether it was technically true or not.

Hay recommended that the United States give Raisuli and the sultan one last warning before any real military action needed to be taken. Roosevelt agreed—despite these new findings, Roosevelt knew this was an issue of both pride and politics at this point.

It was up to Hay to write the ultimatum to the sultan, and it needed to be an aggressive one. The result was seven words that hit the exact right note:

“We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

Of course, there was more to the cable than just that one chilling warning. But that single sentence so perfectly captured the mood of the message that no one needed to read any further than that. TR, through the words of Hay, was dispatching a concise warning to the sultan, to Raisuli, and to anyone else who dared bring harm to an American citizen—even if they were only American in spirit.

As he prepared to send the wire to Gummere in Tangier, Hay read the draft to Edwin Hood, a news correspondent at the State Department, who loved it so much that he took a copy and sent it over the newswires right as Hay sent it to Morocco.

The warning soon made its way into the public, and it didn’t take long for Republican National Convention chairman Joseph Cannon to get a copy. At approximately 3 p.m. on June 22, he made his way near the convention stage, where Henry Cabot Lodge had just finished a vague spiel on the party’s stances on riveting topics like tariffs and the civil service.

Cannon took his copy of the cable and gave it to a clerk to read to the crowd. At the words “We want either Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead,” the crowd went nuts.

Supporters stood on their chairs. The cheers were deafening. One Republican from Kansas exclaimed, “Our people like courage. We’ll stand for anything those two men do,” while another described it as “Good, hot stuff.”

The message showed action, it showed excitement, it showed that the American people had a president that meant business.

If it wasn’t already set in stone, it was now clear that Roosevelt’s nomination was secure—but over in Morocco, the cable was a moot point.

The sultan of Morocco had already agreed to Raisuli’s demands—paying a $70,000 ransom for the release of Perdicaris and his stepson. On top of that, an extra $4000 was sent to the U.S. for its expenses.

Perdicaris later wrote that “the memory of that evening is … associated with an ineffaceable sense of horror.” Still, he wasn’t terribly traumatized by the ordeal—in fact, he and Raisuli had struck up a friendship. Perdicaris would recall that he was treated more like an honored guest, rather than a prisoner. And upon parting, Raisuli told Ion that if anyone tried to harm him in the future, “I … will come with all [of] my men to your rescue.”

Later, the incident would serve as the basis for a movie starring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen called The Wind and the Lion. Brian Keith, who you may know as the dad in The Parent Trap, played TR.

As for the truth behind Perdicaris’s Greek citizenship? It would remain a secret for another 30 years.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jay Serafino, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.